Speed Paraphrasing

Learning how to paraphrase is a crucial academic writing skill. Teaching paraphrasing is also a great way to teach critical thinking skills, because the struggle to write a succinct paraphrase forces students to wrestle with the underlying meaning of a writer’s statement. Here’s how I introduced this topic in my English for academic purposes class this semester.

Rather than give my students long blocks of text to paraphrase, I started with simple aphorisms by some of America’s greatest writers. Take, for instance, the following quotation attributed to Ernest Hemingway:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.”

How, I asked my students, could they express the underlying idea of this quotation in their own words? And could they do it in fewer words than the original quote?

I began by giving my students 10 minutes to speak first with one classmate, then with another, and then another to see if they could jointly unpack the meaning of the quote and explain it to each other (whence the parallel to “speed dating”).  I then gave students 10 minutes to work with a partner to come up with a written paraphrase. Then I asked them to dictate their paraphrase to a classmate at the board.

Here are some of the paraphrases we ended up with:

  1. It’s easy to write but hard to think.
  2. Creating is a piece of cake. It only costs you your life.
  3. To make something written, you need to torture your mind.
  4. Writing is not a big deal. Sit in front of your computer and let your imagination come out.
  5. Writing hurts.
  6. Expressing my thoughts is a pleasure. All I need is to print words on paper.

The next challenge was for students to evaluate their classmates’ paraphrases in small groups. I challenged my students to review the paraphrases on the board and decide: Did any of their classmates’ paraphrases capture Hemingway’s sense of irony? Which ones did they think best captured the underlying point that Hemingway wanted to make?

As the students debated among themselves the merits of the different paraphrases on the board, they began to realize why some of the efforts fell short, (i.e., paraphrases #4 and #6 missed the point of the original quotation). Paraphrase #5 got high marks for succinctness from students who liked that it went right for the jugular (no pun intended). Paraphrase #1 was also judged to be close to the original in spirit, and praised for being more succinct than the original quotation.

This semester, we  also tackled an even shorter, more challenging quote (often misattributed to Mark Twain):

“If I had more time, this letter would be shorter.”

What better way to teach writing students the virtues of being concise and succinct than to have them ponder the meaning of that paradox and attempt to paraphrase it?


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ELs Living With Trauma, Violence, and Chronic Stress

I’d like to welcome and thank guest blogger Debbie Zacarian, whose impressive credits are listed below. Debbie and I are presenting a TESOL- sponsored a webinar on Wednesday, 4 March 2015, about Teaching English Learners Living With Trauma, Violence, and Chronic Stress. We are also presenting a half-day Preconvention Institute on this topic on 25 March from 1 pm–5 pm at the 2015 TESOL convention in Toronto, Canada.

Last month, Spare Parts, a film  and book based on a true story  of about four undocumented Latino high school students who formed a robotics team that beat MIT engineering students in a contest, was released. Their personal stories shine much-needed light on a large and growing segment of our nation’s population.

Developing programming for ELs living with trauma, violence, and chronic stress

We often base programming on limited information. Schools frame and build programming and policies for ELs based on their (1) home languages, (2) countries of origin, (3) rate of English language development, and (4) performance on state assessments of English language arts/reading and mathematics.While information about these four characteristics provides us with helpful information, many, if not most, ELs have experienced or are experiencing high levels of trauma, violence, and chronic stress—such as the students profiled in Spare Parts.

Trauma and violence are affecting children in epidemic proportions

Unfortunately, trauma, violence, and chronic stress are occurring in epidemic proportions for many school-aged children. Here are some important facts about ELs with these experiences:

  • In 2013, 69,930 refugees were admitted to the United States, with the largest groups coming from Iraqi, Burmese, Bhutanese, Somali, and Cuban nations.
  • 107,000 undocumented minor children, ages of 0-17, were apprehended crossing into the United States from Central America. There were 38,759 that crossed the border in fiscal year 2013 and 68,541 in 2014—a 77% increase in 1 year. A large proportion of these children are under 14 years of age.
  • 4.4 million children born in the United States have at least one parent who is undocumented. Hirokazu Yoshikawa, a renowned child developmental psychologist and author of Immigrants Raising Children, found that many of the nation’s children of undocumented immigrants experience very high levels of chronic stress from fear of deportation, living in extreme poverty, and being isolated from peers.
  • According to the 2009 Quality Counts  report, families of English language learners had incomes that were 200% below poverty level.

Schools must be much more prepared for the realities of ELs suffering from trauma, violence, and chronic stress. Here are some steps to take.

Use an empathetic approach

Draw from students’ strengths intentionally to help them to manage new (1) activities, (2) behaviors, and (3) language until they are able to engage in these on their own. Provide modeling, student practice opportunities, and a gradual release of supports.

Build a collaborative team

Students who suffer from psychological trauma are driven by fear of something happening that is out of their control. To address this, we should:

  • Create a collaborative team of counselors, teachers, support staff and others, such as bilingual-bicultural translators/professionals, to create a school and learning environment that is based on the personal, social, cultural, and world experiences of ELs.
  • Provide the team with ongoing professional growth (e.g., book study) about ELs and other students living with trauma, violence, and chronic stress

Implement Predictable Classroom Routines and Practices

Systematic and explicit instruction targeted to the developmental age and English language developmental level of students is also critical. This includes:

  • Separating learning tasks into discrete single steps and providing students with the reasons/rationale for these steps.
  • Enacting the same routines and practices on a daily basis (e.g, starting each class with a description of the learning goals and what students will do to learn these).
  • Using clear and precise student-friendly language.
  • Using project-based learning, and experiences that are meaningful for ELs. It was project-based learning that kept the four students from Spare Parts in school.
  • Consistently providing a model of expected behavior (e.g, how to engage in a paired or small group task) and providing students with multiple practice opportunities to apprentice into these behaviors using paired and small group learning as a primary method.

Supporting student access to services

Many families of ELs living with trauma, violence, and chronic stress are not familiar with the range of programming and services that are available to school-aged children (such as Head Start, public preschool and after-school programming, public health, and legal aid). Educators can play a critical role in helping families to access these supports by collaboratively engaging school support staff and others to build connections with community-based service agencies to ensure that access is provided.

Following these practices can help us in building programming and practices that are far more tailored to the needs of ELs.


Debbie Zacarian is known nationally for her work and writing in advancing student achievement Pre-K–16. A policy and practice expert, she has provided professional development for thousands of educators; written policies for numerous urban, suburban and rural districts and state agencies; and supported the efforts of many school and district improvement initiatives.

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David Kertzner’s Two Cents on Technology in ESP

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

As an ESPer, I listen to David Kertzner when he talks. Why? I expect to learn something. David’s company, Proactive English, is described on its website as “a web-integrated, English language and communication training provider serving multinational corporations in the U.S. and abroad.” In this TESOL Blog post, I would like to focus on David’s article in the most recent ESPIS newsletter. His article is titled My Two Cents on Technology (and includes a photo of David, which will be useful if you want to greet him when you see him at the TESOL annual convention in Toronto in March).

David’s words of wisdom about content

One of the topics that David discusses in his article is content. An extract appears below:

In most workplace ESP situations, textbooks are of decreasing value for users—in my opinion. I would suggest that trainers should orient themselves, instead, to the concept of “mass customization”—the notion that trainers can provide variety and customization in the learning experience (including content delivery) without a corresponding increase in costs. As language trainers, we should see ourselves as sharing a core body of knowledge including the grammar and structure of English, which is basically the same as it has been for a long, long time. The contexts for using the language have certainly changed, sometimes dramatically over the past 20 years, but they also become more predictable for anyone who has had some experience training in corporate or vocational settings.

The trick, as I see it, is selecting appropriate core language content from one’s files, and working such content into contextualized (and reusable) learning activities for the client we are working with. This, in turn, depends on having organized learning files on one’s hard drive much in the same way the file cabinet used to be organized—only easier. Search functions can find well-labeled documents. Tools like Google Drive or other cloud services allow us to share content with those who need it, such as hired teachers, in-house teachers, and anyone else with an interest. The wheel does not need to get reinvented every time.

In his writing above (and from a business perspective), David is essentially teaching us how to make money by using good administrative skills. In other words, he is describing the wise teacher’s way to create customized materials for students at low cost.

An online stopwatch in a Business English class

As a teacher of Business English classes, I also find the low cost factor and easy accessibility of materials described above to be very important in my teaching. Consider the following very simple example. In class, I want my students to be actively involved in the co-creation of our lessons.  In order to achieve such co-creation throughout the entire class, I use an online stopwatch. In this connection, before the start of a class activity, I tend to do the following:

  • I divide the students into pairs or small groups.
  • I explain the activity that the students will do.
  • I ask the students how much time they need to do the activity.

The negotiation process begins when I ask students how much time they need. The students are not only negotiating with me, but they are also negotiating with each other. The negotiations are often less than 30 seconds, but they are enjoyable and sometimes entertaining. When we have reached an agreement on the amount of time, I enter the time limit into the online stopwatch, and the countdown begins.

As David mentions, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. What we need to do is to continue learning as much as possible so that we can more effectively meet the needs of our students and create the kinds of environments that produce good learning experiences.

As for me, I am looking forward to learning how to be a better teacher online! How about you? Check out David’s article!

All the best,


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10 Grammar Mistakes

Helllo everyone,
I found this fun post over on We are Teachers.  It talks about 10 common grammar mistakes and fun games and activities to help your students overcome them! 

You know those grammar errors that students make in second grade … and third grade … and are still making in high school? Here are 10 lesson ideas that just might make the grammar rules stick, by WeAreTeachers blogger Erin Bittman.

Here is my favorite:
I vs Me Grammar MistakeLESSON: Drop “_____ and”
The easiest way for students to know when they should use I versus me in their sentences is to drop the “_____ and.” For example, You and I went to the store versus You and me went to the store. Which sounds correct? I went to the store or Me went to the store? Another example is with a name: The dog followed Mason and I or The dog followed Mason and me. Drop “Mason and,” and which sounds right? The dog followed me. To turn this into an educational activity, designate two corners of the classroom, one for I and one for me. Read a sentence using a blank where I or me should be inserted. Students go to the corner with the correct word (I or me). You could also play this on the playground so that students could run to the correct word. Write the words I and me in huge letters on the blacktop. Split your class into two teams. Two students come up at a time. After you read a sentence with the missing word (I or me), the students run to the I or me. The students who stand on the correct word get a point for their team.

Click on over to We Are Teachers to read about all the activities!  Let us know which is your favorite!

Happy Teaching!

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Building Vocabulary Through Word Parts: 6 Helpful Websites

Prefixes, suffixes, and roots are very helpful in vocabulary building. If students know the meaning of word parts (especially of Greek and Latin origin), they will more likely be able to understand the meaning of a word in a particular context and increase their vocabulary arsenal.

In my last blog I described seven websites that allow teachers to make vocabulary flashcards and to use a variety of flashcards on different topics. Today I ‘d like to share six websites that could help students build their vocabulary knowledge through prefixes, roots, and suffixes. Some activities can also be used in the classroom.

1. Free Reading: Prefixes and Suffixes Activities

This website contains classroom activities for practicing prefixes and suffixes. All activities are divided into three categories: introducing, reintroducing, and building mastery. Through the first set of activities—introducing—learners get acquainted with a particular prefix or suffix, see its use in words, and recognize words having a particular prefix or suffix. The second category—reintroducing—offers activities that allow students to build new words by adding prefixes or suffixes to the roots of words. Finally, the last category—building mastery—contains a number of extension activities that give students the opportunity to apply their knowledge about the prefix or suffix. What I also like about this resource is that it has handouts for the activities in the second and third categories.

2. Preparation for an American University Program: Vocabulary Workshop

What’s good about this website is that it offers comprehensive lists of English prefixes, suffixes, and roots. Each of these word parts includes a definition, an example of a word with its definition, and the demonstration of how the word is built with this particular prefix, suffix, or root.

For example:

epi-, upon, beside, over

epilogue (noun): the concluding section of a play or literary work

epi + logue

The downside of this website is a lack of activities.

3. Vocabulary.co.il

Activities on this website are designed for young native speakers of English—Grades 3 to 12. However, they can be used in a second language class. A variety of fun games offered on this website will help students stay motivated and engaged. The games can be used as classroom activities or given to students for individual practice at home. Through these games, students will see that learning roots, prefixes, and suffixes can be fun!

4. The Longman Vocabulary Website

This resource can be used after word parts have been taught. The multiple-choice and matching questions offered on this website are divided into three levels—beginner, intermediate, and advanced. You can assign these quizzes to students merely as a practice opportunity. But you can also use them as assessment material: The website allows students to print out their results or send them to you via email for grading.

5. Word Quests for Word Seekers

A wonderful resource for learning Greek and Latin word parts! You will find information about word parts, including their meanings, examples or words, and even word histories. There is indeed plenty of useful materials on this website that teachers can use in the classroom and that students can learn on their own.

6. Prefixsuffix.com

This source is more suitable for advanced learners. There is also lots of theoretical information, so teachers can use it when teaching about word parts.

Do you have any favorite resources or activities for teaching word parts that you’d like to share?

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